From The Editor | March 23, 2022

Reconsidering 'Environmental Racism'


By Kevin Westerling,


Water Online recently published an article for Water Innovations on environmental racism — Environmental Racism In America: How It's Affecting Vulnerable Communities — and I paused during the editing process to consider watering down the key phrase to "environmental injustice" before ultimately deciding that I might also be watering down the transgression itself. However, the very consideration made me wonder why I had the instinct to tone it down in the first place.

I think the answer is two-fold. First (but not necessarily foremost), I take pains not to inflate language for effect — i.e., ‘clickbait’ the audience with trigger words. We get enough of that in our news feeds. But also, I was feeling uncomfortable with the idea that some decision-making around infrastructure development and environmental policy was actually racist rather than being merely, albeit woefully, ignorant or inconsiderate. While I do not like to assume malicious intent based on bad outcomes, this could be a case of naivete on my part, or even privilege.

Where I landed in this self-evaluation/editing exercise was, Who am I to say? The author of the article, Jonathan Sharp, CFO of the Environmental Litigation Group, P.C., is well-versed in the history and the initial and ongoing impact of those civil proceedings, whereas I don’t have the historical or personal perspective that would give me the right to soften the delivery.

I was reminded of all this as the Biden Administration launched its new initiative to prioritize environmental equity and correct the injustices wrought by environmental racism — which, to be clear, is when infrastructure is constructed or environmental decisions are made to the advantage of some while distinctly disadvantaging others, with race as an underlying (if not driving) factor. And even with a charitable assumption of no ill intent, there is certainly an argument that the blatant disregard for a neighborhood or population segment, especially when no members of the affected group were consulted or represented, can be considered de facto racism.

With that as backdrop, I ask you to examine your own thinking and gut reactions when encountering ideas and language that make you uncomfortable, while understanding that an epiphany for you or me is no doubt patently obvious to others with different lived experiences.

Although long overdue, here are some of the federal initiatives recently announced to correct some of the environmental wrongs of the past and do better for the future.

From the U.S. EPA:

  • On March 8, 2022, [EPA] issued a memorandum to guide collaborative implementation with state and local partners of $43 billion in water infrastructure funding through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. President Biden, with bipartisan support from Congress, is providing the single largest investment in water the federal government has ever made. EPA’s memo is a key implementation step that outlines requirements and recommendations for the Drinking Water and Clean Water State Revolving Funds (SRFs) to ensure the country is working together to deliver clean and safe water and replace lead pipes for all Americans, especially disadvantaged communities.
  • [C]heck out Assistant Administrator for Water Radhika Fox's blog post about the signing of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.
  • The memo issued [March 8] follows a letter from EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan to Governors in December of 2021, encouraging states and Tribes to maximize the impact of water funding from the law to address disproportionate environmental burdens in historically disadvantaged communities across the country.
  • [On March 28], the Environmental Protection Agency published its final Fiscal Year (FY) 2022-2026 EPA Strategic Plan to accompany EPA's FY 2023 President’s Budget. The Strategic Plan provides a roadmap to achieve EPA’s and the Biden-Harris Administration’s environmental priorities over the next four years. This Strategic Plan furthers the agency's commitment to protecting human health and the environment for all people, with an emphasis on historically overburdened and underserved communities. ...More information on EPA’s Strategic Plans can be found at: Strategic Plan.

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